Why rabid partisanship is not helping US trucking

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Just back from the annual American Trucking Associations Management Conference and must admit I’m left wondering if trucking executives – the ones in the US anyway — really get what they deserve when it comes to their dealings with government.
Let me explain. Just a couple of months ago, at another conference, the Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference in Dallas, Frank Luntz, a political consultant and Republican Party strategist shared some advice with industry executives on how to communicate more effectively with government and the public. It’s all in the words you use or don’t use, Luntz said.
He offered up the kind of gems I have learned to deplore over the more than 20 years I have spent as a journalist. For example, if you don’t give a damn about environmental standards. Don’t go saying you want to relax environmental standards – that’s not going to get you far. Instead say you’re in favor of “relaxing government regulations.” They both mean the same damn thing but only the latter gets the discussion going.
I may not agree with his end game (to confuse true intention) but I still think Luntz’s advice to industry executives to speak more diplomatically if they want to get the ear of the public and politicians is sound.
Too bad nobody listened to him. At least that’s the distinct feeling I got after spending a couple of days at the ATA conference. From Derek Leathers, president and CEO of Werner Enterprises, for some reason, in the midst of a panel session on the driver shortage, feeling the need to quip that the most important indicator for the Truckload sector will be a moving truck backing up to the White House come January, to almost every delegate cheering when Fox News’ Stuart Varney, who moderated another session, forecast Mitt Romney taking over the Oval Office — as a bystander to the American political process I can’t help but feel the strong bias towards the Republican ticket amongst ATA members. Especially when I remember many of these same delegates loudly booing just a few years ago the mere mention of the possibility that Hillary Clinton could have become a US president.
It made me wonder if there were any Democratic party officials in the room, how they would feel about working with executives so clearly against their party. If they’re in power come January, will they really feel energized to go to bat for this industry?
It made me wonder if there were any trucking executives in the room who lean towards Democratic party ideals, how they would feel being amongst such a demonstrably partisan crowd. There must have been some – did they feel welcome within this organization?
To be fair, ATA boss Bill Graves, a former Republican state governor, from what I’ve seen, displays nothing but professionalism in his comments. You get the sense he’s willing to work with either party. But the scenes I’ve mentioned above and the very fact that Stuart Varney, from the clearly Republican leaning Fox News, is brought back year after to moderate the conference’s most popular session, All Eyes on the Economy, speak a little too clearly of the ATA’s leanings.
It made me wonder how American politics have become so polarized. As a journalist it made question how political debate in the world’s largest democracy has deteriorated to the point where the clearly biased Fox News and the equally biased the other way MSNBC can rise to such stature? Whether you lean to the right or the left, or don’t give a rat’s ass about politics, long term it can do nothing but harm to lock yourself in such a bubble of political and economic “reality.” It may feel comfortable to live in such an artificial construct where everyone believes in the same things you do and any outside influences are shunned. But ultimately, it’s a self-defeating business and political strategy because it can never be energized by a vigorous debate of new ideas.
Not being an American perhaps I should just shut up. But I won’t, for two reasons.
One, because as a Canadian I have a lot of skin in this game. The US is our largest trading partner by a mile and what happens south of the 49th affects us to a great degree. We face some of the most challenging economic times since the Great Depression and if the American economy is being held back by political partisanship that’s going to hurt Canada and trucking in particular.
Two, because I think we have a better example of how to do things. Sure our media has its share of political bias. Everyone knows National Post editorial policy leans to the right and the Toronto Star leans to the left. But can you honestly point to any major Canadian media outlet that is as rabidly partisan as Fox News and MSNBC?
A little closer to home, I’ve been attending the Ontario Trucking Association conference and other provincial trucking conferences for more than two decades. I’m sure the executives at these events have their political leanings, and in some cases they probably feel as passionate about them as their US counterparts. Yet I can’t recall even one moment in all those years where a person of any political stripe would have been made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.
Perhaps it’s not in our nature as Canadians to wear our political leanings on our sleeves. But, for my money, that’s the better way to approach business.

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With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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  • The words “if they’re in power” prove that you are misunderstanding the American political process. If you really want to accomplish something, you need a strong lobby, and a strong lobby means support for powerful people in Washington (or the state capital, if you are seeking changes to state law). They may or may not be the same political brand as the current occupant of the White House, but they will be sure to get things done. It’s important to know the difference. Otherwise you become the “incredible flailing arms tube man” and accomplish nothing but becoming a laughing stock.